John Travolta Hunting Ex-Delta Force Commando In ‘Punisher’

Adaptation of Marvel Comics book due next summer.

John Travolta must be looking to get whacked, because he’s signed on to play the lead villain in the upcoming big-screen adaptation of “The Punisher.”

Based on the Marvel Comics antihero, “The Punisher” will follow the exploits of former special forces operative Frank Castle, who becomes a brutal vigilante after his family is slain by the mob. Thomas Jane (“Boogie Nights”) will tackle the title role, while Travolta will play Saint, a criminal-turned-socialite who becomes vengeful after Castle plays an indirect role in his son’s death.

“We didn’t want to do a cliché villain,” explained Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad, who is heading up “The Punisher” with Artisan Pictures. “We are going for a dignified businessman [who is] cold but almost charming. And we are going to see his world fall apart like he made Frank’s world fall apart. … There is a lot of pain to what happens to Saint in this movie. And we needed an actor who can carry a real emotional journey.”

Originally launched in the pages of “Spider-Man,” the Punisher once headlined three monthly titles of his own until overexposure crushed the character’s popularity. Though one supernaturally themed relaunch was a dud, the gritty back-to-basics approach of comic scribe Garth Ennis (“Preacher”) put the Punisher back into the good graces of fans and critics. The Punisher film, screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh’s (“Armageddon”) directorial debut, will draw from Ennis’ “Welcome Back Frank” storyline.

“We are really into ‘Welcome Back Frank,’ ” Arad said. “It’s great characters. It’s going to be obviously a hard movie, but there were also great scenes [in the comics] that were almost funny.”

Arad also points to comic-turned-movie “Road to Perdition” as inspiration. “We’d like to take the Punisher saga and turn it into a real interesting film about emotions, about punishment, and deal both with the hero and the villain evenhandedly as people first and see what happens when the shoe is on the other foot. And you really need great actors to pull it off.”

Though most critics found Thomas Jane effective in the romantic comedy “The Sweetest Thing,” diehard Punisher fans have expressed skepticism about whether or not he can pull off the toughened Castle. But Arad has no doubts.

“There is something about Thomas that worked so well for us with Jennifer [Garner] as Elektra and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. You don’t want to just get a man of steel — you want a man of steel with a bleeding heart. You want someone who cares and therefore you’re going to care for him. Thomas Jane, he has soulful eyes. I see him as a cross between Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. And he has that thing about him — when he is sad, you feel like crying with him. And when he is mad? Watch out.

“The one thing these Delta Forces guys have over everybody is that they’re really decent people although they’re trained to be the best of the best [at killing],” he added. “And that’s the spirit of Frank. He is not a guy who enjoys pulling a trigger. On the contrary, he has a lot to lose. That’s why this movie is going to be so dramatic. Between Thomas Jane and some other casting that is coming down in the next couple of weeks, you are going to look at this and say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s an art-house movie.’ ”

Any art-house leanings will be a far cry from Hollywood’s first take on “The Punisher.” A low-budget “Punisher” film starring Dolph Lundgren (“Rocky IV”) in 1989 was a flop, dismissed for its low production values and for deviating from the established Punisher mythos. And most noticeably, Lundgren didn’t wear the Punisher’s signature skull T-shirt.

Arad promises Jane will. “And the costume has been improved. You’ll see. It’s not just a piece of graphics. It stands for something very simple but very emotional.”

In addition to “The Punisher,” Arad and Marvel are also involved in big-screen adaptations of “The Hulk,” “Iron Fist,” “Iron Man,” “The Fantastic Four,” “Werewolf by Night,” “The Sub-Mariner” and an “Elektra” spinoff (see “Flying Half-Amphibian With Pointy Ears Lands Movie Deal” and “Jennifer Garner Talks ‘Daredevil’ Spinoff Movie For Elektra” ), which are all at various stages of development, as well as “Spider-Man 2.” The last six pictures Marvel Films has been involved with enjoyed #1 openings at the box office.

Travolta is currently shooting the firefighter drama “Ladder 49,” but “The Punisher” is scheduled to begin filming as soon as July with Artisan eyeing a summer 2004 release.